Fried Green (Heirloom) Tomatoes


A small hint of summer to come topped the horizon today; the first heirloom tomatoes from Comanche Creek Farms arrived at Harvest Market.  There was a veritable rainbow of reds, yellows, oranges and greens cascading from a tall basket in the organic produce section, the aroma of the season beckoning.  Suspicious of the ripeness of the large warm-toned slicers, I reached for the bright green multi-lobed ones with white shoulders.  Their firm heaviness told me all I needed to know, that they were perfect for that childhood favorite, fried green tomatoes. 

Memories of this dish go deep, and I cannot honestly tell you which one of my grandmothers loved it more.  I suspect that the roots of this family tradition came from the branch of my father’s mother’s family that hailed from somewhere in Virginia.  In our recipe, the greenest, hardest tomatoes you can find are sliced thickly, and coated with cornmeal (grits) on both sides.  Traditionally, bacon drippings were heated in a cast iron pan until the aroma filled the kitchen, then the tomatoes were added and browned on both sides.  Today, as a nod to our cholesterol, I use peanut oil with a couple of tablespoons of bacon drippings for flavor.  After draining on newspapers, the tomatoes wait in a warm oven, allowing the centers to soften and finish cooking through.  The tangy tartness edged with a hint of fruitiness balances well with the smokiness of the bacon and the crunch of the cornmeal crust.  I often eat the small end slices right off the spatula, burning the tip of my tongue in the process.

Searching though old Tuscan recipes in an Italian language food magazine, I once came across a recipe for fried green tomatoes sauced with a reduction of saba, the sour, unfermented green grape juice, sometimes called verjus here in California.  Perhaps the quintessential dish of the American south awakened some buried taste memory for my mother’s mother?  Whatever the reason, this was a dish she enjoyed when she came to stay with us at the summer cabin we rented in the eastern Sierra Nevada.  The roots of these dishes cross borders and boundaries, and seem to be born of the concept of scarcity.  I enjoy this dish in early summer, too impatient to wait for the tomatoes to achieve their full sunny glory; and in the early fall, when the remaining hard, green globes on the vines in my garden give up the idea of ripening at all.  This way, nothing is wasted, and every bit of the oh-s0-seasonal fresh tomato can be cherished.

Post by Julia Conway on June 11th, 2008